Pitt engineering students now have the chance to work on projects that are literally out of this world.
The National Science Foundation’s Center for High-Performance Reconfigurable Computing, also known as CHREC, transferred its headquarters from the University of Florida to Pitt this January. According to Alan George — CHREC’s founder and director and Pitt’s new chair of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering — he took most of the lab’s materials and research with him when he left UF for Pitt in order to find more connections for the lab.
“Gainesville is a college town, so there’s not many opportunities to collaborate there. We were pretty isolated at UF,” George said. “But Pittsburgh has a ton of tech and research activity. There are plenty of companies and institutes here that CHREC could work with.”
This national research consortium, founded in 2007, conducts projects on an annual basis with 30 partners in industry and government including Cisco Systems, Walt Disney Animation Studios and several branches of NASA.
“One of CHREC’s main goals is to create some kind of impact on society with our work, and these partnerships put us in a position to do so,” George said.
CHREC’s work consists of scientific and engineering research in computer programming and systems meant to find ways to improve reconfigurable computing, high-performance computing and space computing, which focuses on computing material meant specifically for use in space.
Past projects of CHREC’s include Novo-G, which at the time of its creation in 2009 was considered by many to be the most powerful reconfigurable computer in the known world.
“We’ve been surpassed by then by many different new supercomputers, for sure,” George said. “But it’s good to know we’re able to make it to the forefront of this kind of stuff.”
CHREC ‘s current project, which is being worked on at Pitt, sent two space processors, CSP-0 and CSP-1, to the International Space Station in February on NASA Goddard’s STP-H5 mission. According to NASA, the CSPs CHREC sent on the mission are being used by NASA to examine a miniature space computer for its possible use on small spacecraft systems.
“It is designed to tolerate space radiation, which can damage computer systems, and to minimize energy use and cost,” the website says. “Results validate next-generation computer technology that can be used in future small satellites and other NASA missions.”
Since the mission’s launch, CHREC’s student and faculty have been keeping in touch with NASA while also conducting their own experiments as well, sending commands to its experimental processors from conventional computers on a ground station in Schenley Place.
“The computers on the space station are faster and more reliable than conventional ones,” George said. “They upload images quicker, and take pictures at a high resolution.”
CHREC currently has experiments going in several different types of computing — including reconfigurable computing — on the ISS.
“We do that from the ground by adding new apps from the ground to the computers in space,” George said. “We’re able to change the hardware as well.”
George said despite CHREC’s many partnerships, each project it works on is still wholly its own.
“Our partners don’t tell us what to do,” George said. “They say we have this research challenge, try it out. If we like it, we move forward with it. They don’t dictate anything.”
Space computing remains the dominant research challenge for CHREC, considering the limited resources and constraints that some with crafting material meant to operate beyond earth’s atmosphere, he said. Now, however, it is more relevant than ever.
“The demand for better space computers is high because ground center computers are getting better, and because people want more autonomous functions like autonomous docking and autonomous roving,” George said. “This stuff takes powerful computers, and a lot of our research focuses on solving these challenges.”
George said CHREC is looking to launch more experiments to the ISS in the future while at Pitt. It already has plans to send up a cluster of CSP space computers on NASA’s STP-H6 mission, called Spacecraft Supercomputing for Image and Video Processing, slated for launch in 2018. CHREC also has plans for the launch of STP-H7, although George said he “can’t say much on that yet.” He can, however, say a few things about plans for Pitt’s first satellite in space.
“We just started working on it this past year,” George said. “We’ve been growing and growing and taking on more responsibilities The obvious next step is to add on to our tech.”
George said CHREC wants to create a satellite for Pitt in order to give CHREC more autonomy in its projects.
“Being tethered to a space station is a great opportunity, but it limits CHREC in where we can go and how much we can do,” George said. “And we’ve worked on several satellite projects already before, such as NASA’s Ceres and Lockheed Martin’s Skyfire. But with those, we just worried about space computing.”
George said that a Pitt satellite has the potential to impact computing in several ways beyond simply allowing CHREC to experiment more with space computing, since computers designed for space can have effects on more conventional computing.
“I like to joke that space is like NYC when it comes to computing. If you can make it there you can make it anywhere,” George said. “Because it’s so complex, what we could create and develop for the satellite could help improve computing in society, which is what CHREC’s all about.”
Ryan Blair, a recent Pitt mechanical engineering graduate, worked with CHREC on its experiments for the upcoming STP-H6 mission as part of his senior design project. He and five other students collaborated with industry professionals including former NASA and SpaceX employees associated with CHREC in spring 2017 to create a box to hold and protect SSIVP during its time in space.
“A lot of the stuff CHREC does is pretty relevant to the future, I think,” Blair said. “Experimenting with space computing and supercomputing powers in general seems more necessary in the present, because possibilities like space travel are suddenly being considered and people in all kinds of fields, not just space, are looking for faster and stronger computing.”
Rina Zhang, a sophomore mechanical engineering major, began working at CHREC in early May. She will be helping out with the mechanical design and structural analysis for the space processors CHREC plans on sending up in on future missions with NASA, and hopes to eventually work on the planned Pitt satellite.
“So far I’ve just had training at CHREC. They’re training us in [Satellite Tool Kit] software right now,” Zhang said. “We can use that to calculate the location of a satellite in relation to the ground, what time it moves over a certain point, cool stuff like that.”
Zhang said it is important for an engineer to know about different softwares that apply to many industries, so what she’s learning at CHREC can be useful for what she does after college. The few limits they have on their work also benefits her as a researcher.
“CHREC’s new to campus, so it’s brought a lot of opportunities with it. We have a lot of free rein, I think, which is pretty exciting,” she said. “We’re expected to puzzle out solutions for challenges on our own. And it’s brought space research to Pitt, which is awesome, since we don’t have much in the way of that.”
George said, as chair of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department, he is looking to expand Pitt’s space program within the classroom, starting with an aerospace engineering program.
“Nothing formal has been made, but I’ve found a lot of interest among students for aerospace engineering studies, George said. “A lot of my research is aerospace stuff, so it would be wonderful if we could get a certificate or something going.”
For now, though, he’s simply excited about the opportunities opening up for CHREC here at Pitt.
“It’s only been five months and we’re already growing, which is what we came here for,” he said. “We’re helping create the next generation of technologists and researchers while doing what research centers do: trying to have an impact on society with our ideas and discoveries.”